Thursday, February 28, 2013

Review: Monica Wesolowska's Holding Silvan: A Brief Life


Hawthorne Books 
202 pages, paperback

Midway through her breathtaking memoir, Holding Silvan: A Brief Life, Monica Wesolowska recounts an incident from her childhood: On an ordinary weeknight after her mother had left for choir practice her father began serving dessert, “cutting and distributing as equally as he could to four kids. He passed the first piece to me. I watched him cut the next. It was a good-looking piece, too, and as I would relate it to myself later, I thought, I will be polite and pass this down to Katya. Abruptly, my father changed the position of his knife. ‘For holding out for a bigger piece than your sister,’ he said, ‘you get half.’ I howled at the injustice. . . . [M]y father wanted me to accept that, even if the next piece was smaller, my life was fine. He wanted me to be grateful for whatever I got. . . . For being good, for caring about others, for suffering enough myself on behalf of those others, I thought I deserved at least the same as everybody else.” 

In clear and transcendent prose, Wesolowska urges gratitude for life’s gifts even in the direst of circumstances. After a long labor she delivers her firstborn, a beautiful, full-term, seemingly healthy baby boy. Her joy is palpable, even as she admits that he is limp and silent and the neonatologists whisk him off “for observation.” Soon, however, Wesolowska and her husband discover what the medical team fears: during labor and delivery the brain of Baby Boy Wesolowska -- Silvan Jerome Fisher -- has suffered a catastrophic insult -- oxygen deprivation -- that leaves him with irreversible brain damage. 

Holding Silvan begins with an epigraph by Václav Havel: “Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.” The doctors at first “keep holding out hope like little bits of candy,” but soon they name Silvan’s condition: severe hypoxic ischemic encephalopathy. Wesolowska and her husband must decide what is in Silvan’s best interest. “Where’s the line? When’s enough?” Wesolowska asks. “How long can his life be artificially sustained?” 

The narrative arc of Holding Silvan dips into Wesolowska’s past -- including lessons from her Catholic upbringing and reflections on the deaths of family and friends -- and  moves forward to her current children, but it centers on the weeks of Silvan’s life. Doctors and nurses as well as Wesolowska’s husband, family members, clergy, and friends are honestly and sympathetically drawn. The memoir unflinchingly addresses the profound themes of the “good death” and the moral and ethical choices facing patients, their caregivers, clergy, and medical professionals in the age of modern medicine. Wesolowska’s honest, elegant prose places Holding Silvan firmly in the company of Francisco Goldman’s Say Her Name and Joan Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking. 

Above all else Holding Silvan is a stunning meditation on love. “All [Silvan has] known in life is love,” Wesolowska writes:

“Since he came into the world through love, since he’s been surrounded by it, I’d like him to leave knowing nothing else but love. . . . We love him as a newborn, his loamy-scented head, the soft heft of his thighs, the tiny thump of the heart in his chest -- and we love the dark-haired man with the cleft chin whom we are still in the habit of imagining he will become.”

“I bend forward to kiss his forehead, then his nose, then the space by his ear that is free of medical tape. And then I cannot stop. I kiss the front of his neck below the breathing tube, those warm wrinkles, and the side of his neck, so smooth, so smooth, and his shoulder, and creases at the edge of his armpit and across his naked sternum and down towards his belly button, all the while making smacking noises, eating him up. When I raise my head I am renewed. . . . The mother and grandmother at the next crib stare in surprise. ‘That was quite a kiss,’ the grandmother says. ‘Well, once I started I couldn’t stop,’ I say. My time is limited. This is a mother’s love distilled.”


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